Gray whale extinction lies in Shell's hands

Oil and gas activities in Russia's far east should be suspended before they drive the critically endangered gray whale into extinction, a panel of scientists has warned.

Along with Japan's Mitsui and Mitsubishi, oil giant Shell had planned a large-scale offshore oil and gas development off the north-east coast of Sakhalin Island, which included laying pipelines through the feeding ground of the last 100 gray whales in the area.

But following claims by environmentalists that the proposals could lead to the species dying out completely, Shell commissioned an independent study into its operations by the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

On assembling a panel of 14 leading scientists from Russia, Europe and North America, the IUCN confirmed this week that the project posed "potentially catastrophic threats" to the whale population and warned that just one death each year out of the 23 remaining females would invariably lead to their extinction.

The panel also found that the pipeline construction process would cause noise and disturbance to the whales, as well as physical damage to their feeding ground, and would leave them more vulnerable to ship strikes.

Moreover, risks to the whales from oil spills and gas leaks would be seriously increased once the pipelines had been completed.

Overall, the IUCN report criticised the consortium's proposed safeguards as "questionable", inadequate and unspecific, and recommended that Shell suspended operations in the area.

In conclusion, the panel stated: "There is a pressing need for a comprehensive strategy to address not only oil and gas development, but also other threats in order to try to save the Western gray whales and their habitat."

International conservation organisation WWF stated that aborting the operation was critical to the survival of the whales, as well as to the well-being of other rare and endangered species native to Sakhalin, such as Steller sea lions, sea eagles, seals and vast colonies of seabirds.

"If Shell routes this pipeline right through the heart of the whales' feeding grounds, it is potentially condemning them to extinction," said Paul Steele, WWF's chief operating officer. "Shell runs a serious risk of damaging its reputation it if ignores the recommendations of the world's whale experts."

He added that investors should think carefully before backing a project that put shareholder value before the survival of an endangered species.

However, Shell spokesman Ian Craig commented that the company accepted the need to look at alternative pipeline routes and said that the report's findings would be used as a key part of discussions with stakeholders before a final decision was reached.

"We accept this challenge and are confident that we can develop an acceptable way forward based on the application of a conservative risk management approach, as recommended by the panel," he stated.

"We welcome the many detailed recommendations and suggestions for further mitigation measures by the panel, and will be studying these in detail to see how we can incorporate them in our operations."

Shell spokesman Simon Buerk told edie that the company had been concerned for the whales for some time, already having invested over US $9 million in research, and had commissioned the panel's report in order to ensure their work had a minimal environmental and social impact on the Sakhalin area, while still completing their project.

"Shell has taken a bold step by commissioning this independent review," Achim Steiner, director general of the IUCN pointed out.

"This process sets a precedent for how oil, gas and mining companies, and indeed the governments who licence their developments, can use the best independent scientific knowledge to evaluate project plans and make decision."

Mr Buerk confirmed to edie that it would be a matter of weeks, rather than months, before Shell and its stakeholders reached a final decision. By Jane Kettle



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